East Carolina fish stew: Better than candy this Halloween?
When I think back on my childhood Halloweens, I see the dark yard behind our Baptist church, a big fire, and “a cauldron of fish stew bubbling red with an exciting and scary mix of fish heads, spiny bones, and speckled skin,” said Vivian Howard in Deep Run Roots (Little, Brown). In tiny Deep Run, N.C., we didn’t do trick-or-treating; we did the East Carolina fish stew, an event with a particular set of rites and rules.
Some parts of the recipe below are not optional. To begin with, you need the right type of fish— “something meaty and full-flavored, like rockfish, sheepshead, or drum.” Fish heads are optional, as are additions like garlic and sausage. But there can be no omitting the blanket of hard-poached eggs, the thing that makes the stew memorable and unique. And finally, you must remember that the Deep Run Baptist community frowns on muddled fish stew, and no matter what, “not even if Jesus Himself walks on water over to you and asks nicely,” will you ever stir the stew before serving.
Recipe of the week
East Carolina fish stew
1 lb sliced smoked bacon
1 6-oz can tomato paste
3 lbs white or red potatoes, peeled and sliced into ½-inch rounds
2 lbs yellow onions, peeled, halved, and cut into ¼-inch slices
6 garlic cloves, sliced (optional)
3 lbs fish steaks, about 3 oz each, with bones
8 tsp salt
1½ tsp chile flakes
1 dozen eggs
1 loaf white bread
Cut bacon slices into 1-inch squares. Brown in an 8- to 10-quart Dutch oven or cast-iron pot. When bacon is crisp, remove and reserve. Whisk tomato paste into bacon fat, scraping up all the scattlings from browning the bacon. Turn off heat.
Begin layering ingredients. Spread 1/3 of the potato slices on the bottom of the pot, followed by 1/3 of the onions (and garlic, if using), and top with 1 lb of the fish. Sprinkle fish layer with 22/3 tsp salt and ½ tsp chile flakes. Repeat with two more layers. Fill pot with water so it’s just level with top layer of fish. Cover with tightfitting lid and bring to boil slowly over medium heat. Once stew boils, reduce heat and let cook at a high simmer until potatoes are barely tender, about 15 minutes.
Taste broth; add more salt if needed. Then, with stew at a good simmer, add eggs one by one in a single layer over top. Once eggs are cooked through, use large ladle to portion stew. A proper serving is at least one piece of fish, two potatoes, some onions, and an egg swimming in broth. Shower each bowl with crumbled reserved bacon and set up with a slice or two of white bread. Serves 12.